Sitcom Battle Of The Gimmick Seasons: 'How I Met Your Mother' vs. 'Archer Vice'
Sitcoms are tough because common wisdom says they should resist change, which common wisdom also says is what we want in our well-rounded characters.
The classic examples of sitcoms — I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H*, Cheers, Full House, what have you — are families or family-replacement groups that face a new obstacle every week that allows certain character tropes to bounce off each other and create comedy. Since the sitcom is one of the longer-running formats TV has, a lot of the plotting mechanics have been built in because of demands on the medium. In the early days of television, the shows didn’t expect the audience to know anything more about the show than the premise to enjoy any given episode, so each conflict would end at the same time the episode did, resetting the status quo for the beginning of the next week’s episode. Re-runs or syndicated television was often re-shuffled in order. Shows like Star Trek that found an audience in its second-airings wouldn’t have had any guarantee the episode order they were shown was the one the creators intended.
It was the advent of DVD box sets of a season of television that lead to something like Arrested Development, the three-season Fox show. Mitch Hurwitz infused his sitcom with too many jokes and hidden meta commentary that was intended to be watched and rewatched by those who dug what he was putting down. This obsession with intricately plotted situation comedy lead to Netflix’s Arrested Development Season 4, which works less as a season of a comedy and more like the sitcom version of Lost, where equal joy is supposed to be earned by discovering the answer a joke’s mystery or a timeline’s intersection with another character.
On a recent episode of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, Dan Harmon laments about the studio’s view of a sitcom and his return to Community, saying that if he’s going to get to do seven seasons of television, it’s more important to him that they be seven good seasons, regardless of if the show takes place in a community college setting or not. When Community did return with Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna back as the creative center of the show, their first episode back was called “Repilot,” and featured Jeff returning to Greendale as a teacher after graduating during Season 4’s so-called “gas leak year.” Since then, the current season has dealt with two of the original cast members departing the show (Chevy Chase through semantics and Donald Glover’s actual exit) and a handful of plots that center on these characters relationships to each other rather than the mechanic of Jeff now being a teacher at Greendale. The concept is a middle ground where the flimsiest of plots was put in place to make people who fear change feel calm. The irony is the change was a return to the original vision of the creator of the show, not of any of its characters, but it was change none-the-less.
Two sitcoms that have been on the air longer than Community chose this television season to do some risky business: an entire season around one show-changing premise. This, on its face, seems antithetical to the label of “situation comedy,” and sometimes these shows have erred on the side of being too much like LOST-plotting and not enough on the funny. I’m speaking, of course, about the final season of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother and the newest season of FX’s Archer that has self-identified as Archer: Vice.
CBS’s How I Met Your Mother is a problematic show only because it refuses to not be successful for CBS. Craig Thomas and Carter Bays started the show in 2005 with the premise that a future version of Josh Radnor’s Ted (voiced by Bob Saget in narration) was telling the story of how he met the mother of his children. The first season was a mis-direct right from the beginning, focusing around Radnor’s relationship with Cobie Smulders’ Robin who Bays and Thomas knew was not the mother. The show, though, had cursed itself with an ending and a structure of flashbacks and forwards that required the same actors to play the five main characters throughout their lifetimes. How I Met Your Mother’s problem, though, was that it was too successful and went on too long. We’re in the 9th and Final Season, which means The Mother is now involved in the cast, but we have twenty-odd episodes before she can actually meet Ted. If that wasn’t a tough enough cookie to crack, Thomas and Bays decided the final season would take place entirely in the 72 hours of Robin’s wedding to Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney.
This has produced mixed results, from the good (an episode that tracks what The Mother was up to during those previous 8 seasons), to the mediocre (an episode that took place entirely in rhyme hit its high a mere 8 minutes in), to the disastrous (a spoof of Kung Fu films lead to internet outrage when HIMYM put it’s lead characters in yellow face).
FX’s Archer seems more assured with their gimmick season. A cartoon sitcom that featured H Jon Benjamin as the titular super-spy working for an agency called ISIS that is run by his mother. Archer ran for four seasons under that premise and slowly became less about spies and more of a workplace sitcom about yelling that was allowed to break the laws of physics and good taste because it was animated. Highlights for any Archer fan are not the missions as much as the shouting matches and inside jokes between characters (and if you’re a YouTube Archer fan, I’ve found, you love seeing Woodhouse get the sharp end of the stick). For season five, Archer’s creator Adam Reed seems to have just gotten bored with the whole spy angle and spent the season premiere revealing that ISIS had never had the blessing of the US Government. So, the entire cast of Archer gets a metric ton of cocaine and decides to become a drug cartel. This is the gimmick of Archer Vice (new title card and everything), a season of a TV show that is so different from it’s initial premise, Reed ended the first episode with a montage from the rest of the season, just to prove to the audience that the characters are going to stick to this cartel thing, even if it’s not really going to change them.
The difference between these two, for lack of a better term, “gimmick seasons,” is that Archer Vice hasn’t really changed its core dynamic where as How I Met Your Mother has run out of its core dynamic. If we’re judging based on the traditional criteria of a sitcom, How I Met Your Mother embraced a closed world that started at the end and the beginning at the same time and is trying to spend as many episodes as possible before we get to the middle. It makes us feel safe like a sitcom, because we know that everything is going to work out ok, but it undercuts the character motion, especially when we’ve seen all the main characters learn the same lessons for 8 seasons. Now we’re promised that they’ll learn all these lessons again in a matter of 72 hours, which begs the question: Why didn’t we start the story there?
Archer Vice, though changing the status quo, wasn’t ever bound to an ending, so even though it’s completely different from the 4 previous seasons, the characters and scenes are unfolding in that familiar Archer rhythm. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the ISIS Cartel becomes successful, it only matters how we’re laughing that week.
HIMYM ends this March, then we’ll probably look back at it and Arrested Development Season 4 and think: heavy plotting is a difficult way to do a sitcom. I’m just guessing, but I think we’ll remember that Arrested Development did it better.
Dave “Da7e” Gonzales works in cable television for MTV Networks. He podcasts weekly at FightingInTheWarRoom.com and does a special Legend of Korra podcast at RepublicCityDispatch.com. He founded his own production company where he made shorts, commercials, music videos, TV shows and one gay romantic comedy that won Best First Feature at Outfest (it’s on Netflix now!). He has written for online publications ranging from IDontLikeYouInThatWay.com (gossip!) to MentalFloss.com (facts!) with a ton of movie blogs in-between. Marvel threatened him once. Michael Bay has twice said he’s full of crap. He does a weekly column on superhero movie news at Latino-Review.com He had a webcomic once that still lives at DosFactoum.com. He likes cartoons and smoking. His spirit animal is the Mongoose. Follow him on Twitter.